Sacrificing time for the SKCC Weekend Sprint operating event on the radio this past Saturday, I chose instead to travel to Gadsden, Alabama for my first Hamfest there. Who could refuse an offer of free admission, free tables, free coffee and free donuts? Not I.
Conveniently located just a block or two off the Interstate, the Gadsden Hamfest was a typical small-town USA event. The fest was held at the county fairgrounds, home to weekend Bingo, and featured a modest outdoor boneyard. And true to their word, they charged nothing for admission, and provided ample parking too in a nearby pasture.
After the prerequisite exploration of half a dozen truck beds and nearly that many car trunks in the outdoor flea market area, My wife Mary and I entered the large metal pavilion at the fairgrounds. Similar in size to the Cullman Hamfest a month or so earlier, the Gadsden show also boasted a name tag vendor and an MFJ representative in attendance. And there were table after table of vintage radio gear, better known as boat anchors in our hobby, and other eclectic items for sale, including a marvelous German beer stein collection, with only a few cracks I learned, and two handsome Alabama watermelons. I inquired about the melons, and was told they might make a great dummy load, although they weren’t for sale. Seems as though a debt had been settled in full with payment of the fruit from a neighbor’s garden.
Unlike the earlier Cullman hamfest, where I was in search of an SWR/Power meter, I had nothing particular in mind this time. I did instead what most attendees do at such an event. I scoured every table and box for something I just hadn’t known I couldn’t live without.
And sure enough, partially obscured in a box of odds and ends underneath a laconic fellow’s table, I spied a key. Without reaching for it, which might have signaled my interest, I asked instead “Is that your key?”
“Yep” was all he said.
“Given up on code, have you?” I continued. ”
Yep”, he expounded.
It was obvious he was either absorbed in something else, or just not interested in a conversation, so I didn’t pursue it and simply meandered on. But the thought of that key, abandoned in a box of electronic detritus, troubled me.
I was once referred to as a Morse Preservationist, and I think the moniker fits. Ever since I was a young boy first learning the code, I’ve held a great reverence and admiration for the skill. And I seize every opportunity that presents itself to do a bit of evangelizing about the art and joy of Morse. And along the way, I’ve acquired a number of wayward keys and bugs, providing them a loving and nurturing home with the promise of regular use. And I reflected again on the idle key in the box of parts and resolved to attempt an adoption if the price was right.
After several conversations with old friends and new acquaintances, I found myself standing once more in front of the home of the orphaned key.
“How much for the key?”, I inquired, feigning only mild interest.
A puzzled look spread across the face of the current owner, and as he tilted his head to the side to better catch my question, I observed a pair of significant hearing aids. Could that explain his unwillingness to engage in friendly banter, I wondered, and is that the reason he has forsaken code as well? And I was suddenly awash in empathy for the fellow.
I can’t fathom a life without hearing. Music has always been a huge part of my existence, being raised in a musical family, and the idea that I could no longer enjoy the melody of a favorite refrain, or engage in my coveted Morse Code was unthinkable.
And I repeated my question, a bit louder this time. “How much for the key, sir?”
And then, as if mulling over its relative worth to him, the seller replied. “$2.00”.
“I’ll give it a good home”, I promised, as I handed over two one-dollar bills and pocketed the key, but I still felt great compassion for my withdrawn friend.
And I had yet another serendipitous experience at the Gadsden Hamfest. One that definitely defies the odds.
A bit of backstory on this one …
While enjoying the Cullman Hamfest in August, I was enthralled with a presentation I observed. A vendor was pitching his homemade tower contraption, a motorized device on rollers that scooted up and down a tower as pretty as you please and would surely make antenna work a breeze. “Why climb your tower when you can bring your antenna down to earth whenever you need to service it?” was the pitch, and a convincing one too, if only the device wasn’t so pricey … and if only I even HAD a tower.
The seller was wearing a bright red ball cap that sported his callsign – W8RAT.
Not to interrupt his presentation, I visited with his wife who was manning their booth, and casually inquired about a CW schedule with her husband. “You see I collect word call QSL cards”, I explained, “and was sure I didn’t have a RAT card in my collection.” Alas, I learned that W8RAT only worked voice, and there would be no CW schedule in our future.
So now back to Gadsden.
I continued to peruse the various and sundry offerings at the hamfest, newly acquired key clutched lovingly in hand, when I spotted another fellow with his callsign emblazoned on a ball cap.
I was struck with the irony of two RAT callsign encounters in back-to-back hamfests, and stopped to engage the owner. An affable fellow, he explained that his call was original, a random callsign, except for the fact that an ex-wife worked at the FCC when his license was issued. He paused at the telling, observing as the significance of his words slowly registered across my face, but then admitted it was only a joke. And we all shared a hearty laugh and I once again made my plea for a CW contact to swap QSLs for my collection of word calls.
Lawrence explained that he was just getting back into CW and would have to practice some off-air before mustering the confidence for an on-air rendezvous. I leaped at the chance to mention SKCC and their many wonderful offerings for CW operators of all skill levels, and Lawrence promised to look into it.
(Little did I know then that Lawrence and I would correspond, and that I would help him design the very QSL card I hope to one day add to my word call collection!)
And so Mary and I reflected on the Gadsden experience as we motored back to Birmingham. We wondered aloud about the former owner of the key and his particular circumstance, and both remarked how nice our chance encounter with Lawrence had been. Silently, I thanked my lucky stars for the lifelong hobby that continues to provide such joy and amazement.